Review: HBO’s ‘Student Athlete’ Is A Documentary That’s Necessary Viewing For Sports Fans
It’s no secret in college sports that student athletes are taken advantage of. Most arguments against that are the fact that the athletes get a free college education in exchange for their talent that comes with playing a major sport for a potential school.
Unfortunately, not every student gets what they hoped for with the scholarship and future prospects of fame and fortune. Sometimes the cost of something being free tends to be more of a debt they’ll have to deal with for the rest of their lives.
Premise: Unpaid college athletes generate billions of dollars for their institutions every year. Student Athlete unveils the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports through the stories of four young men at different stages of their athletic careers, as well as a coach-turned-advocate and a whistle-blowing shoe rep who exposes the money trail. The documentary spotlights: former NCAA and NFL coach John Shoop; New Jersey high school basketball phenom Nick Richards, now at the University of Kentucky; Mike Shaw, who played basketball at the University of Illinois and Bradley University; Shamar Graves, a former wide receiver at Rutgers University; and Silas Nacita, a walk-on who played football at Baylor University.
What directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton do immediately is display the struggles of current and former athletes who know the system and what it does to you, while mixing in the incredible amounts of money everyone besides the athletes actually make. One NFL pro remarks at a press conference that colleges can easily afford to pay coaches like U of M’s Jim Harbaugh $48 million when you don’t have to pay a cent to the players.
“Let us know what we signed up for — entirely.”
Student Athlete tackles the arguments over paying players that most sports fans have had for generations. Why shouldn’t players get paid when they’re getting a free education? Why shouldn’t the students get paid when they make billions for the NCAA to the point that it’s more than the NFL? The doc takes into account both arguments and expands on them. Sure, the students do get a free education at some of the finest schools in America, but student athletes weren’t recruited because they’re a promising med student with ideas on curing cancer, no, they were recruited because they’re good at sports. That’s the bottom line.
The viewer gets to see the realities of what it’s like to be a current athlete, and an athlete that is out of college and still trying to make it. Some deal with injuries that if they try to play again, it could mean the end of their career for life. Another athlete (Graves) in peak condition who’s just out of college is still looking for a chance, even if it means he loses a place to live.
“College Sports Inc. is drowning in money.”
It’s hard to believe any of the people at the top of the NCAA when talking about educational opportunities for the players being more important than the sports for which they were brought to the college for. High school prospect Nick Richards wakes up before the crack of dawn, travels a long way to high school every morning, attends class, then plays ball.
When he plays, he’s watched by dozens of college scouts who want him to play for their school. Why? Money. Championships. Press. In an organization that’s constantly criticized or comparable to that of slave owners, the image of a bunch of old white men practically drooling over Richards as he played was unnerving.
Sometimes even the school you’re playing at isn’t the right place for an athlete to play. Well, the NCAA has rules for transferring, too. This could mean missing an entire year of college play because you’re ineligible after a transfer.
“The odds are against you, like realistically. I never expected not to be able to play anymore. I had plans to play professionally after my college career, but you have to make the most of your situation. Make sure that you don’t take it for granted. There’s no guarantee.”
Whether it’s getting hurt, getting sold on a dream that would never happen, not getting paid, going to bed starving, getting taken advantage of, and potentially ending up sleeping in your car, this film shows what you don’t see when the buzzer goes off. It shows the behind-the-scenes of what most of us take for granted in as fun entertainment on the weekends or in prime-time. When the game pauses for an injury, it’s merely an inconvenience, but that injury could’ve just ended that athlete’s entire career. What you saw was the bomb exploding, you didn’t wait around to feel the radiation spread.
Student Athlete is documentary filmmaking at it’s finest. You’ll walk away looking at the various sports you love and begin to feel the acid-reflux burning inside the stomach and throats of the industry you love to go to for sports. I cannot recommend this film enough. It will be interesting to see the impact Student Athlete will have on the national conversation after its debut.
RATING: 10/10 Stars
From LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Entertainment and Steve Stoute’s United Masters, the feature-length presentation is directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (HBO’s Oscar winners Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness) and Trish Dalton (Bordering on Treason).
Student Athlete is streaming on HBO GO & HBO NOW and available on HBO On Demand.
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Jeff Sorensen is an author, writer and occasional comedian living in Detroit, Michigan. You can look for more of his work on The Huffington Post, UPROXX, BGR, ScreenRant, and by just looking up his name.